Like many long cultivated plants, okra’s origins cannot be pinpointed but many historians believe it was first cultivated in Ethiopia. Records of its cultivation in ancient Egypt date to over 3000 years ago! In the following centuries was spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Okra was first brought to the Carribean and Southern United States by the slave trade sometime in the 1600s.
It’s a member of the mallow family, related to plans like hibiscus, cotton, and hollyhock. Though it does well in hot climates and will tolerate drought, okra performs best in rich, moist soil.
A resurgence of interest in local food and regional recipes has led to a renewed interest in okra. It certainly is a plant worthy of the attention.
Why Plant Okra?
The flowers are simply gorgeous.
Okra can easily be preserved for winter by making pickled okra.
The leaves are also edible and are often likened to beet or dandelion greens.
Okra seeds can be pressed and make a wonderful oil for cooking.
The seeds can also be roasted and ground and used as a caffeine free, coffee substitute. In the U.S. this practice was used in the south during the Civil War.
The plant’s stem is fibrous and can be used to make cordage or paper.
Okra has a rich history and important culture.
The pods make an excellent thickener for soups and stews, like gumbo.
The dried pods can be used in flower arrangements.
If you’re considering growing okra do realize that it isn’t a small plant. Okra can grow up to 6 feet tall and should be grown 18 inches apart in rows 5-6 feet apart.
If you live in colder climate okra should be started indoors 2-3 weeks before your last frost date. Okra prefers rich soil but soil that’s too high in nitrogen can lead to a lot of leaf growth and little pod development.
Pods often need to be harvested frequently when they’re about 2-4 inches long before they grow too large. The pods can be picked by hand or you can use a small set of pruning shears.
So far this summer is promising to be a hot one. With the temperatures climbing and much of the east coast worrying about droughts like the ones they faced last summer a productive garden may seem like a mere dream. However there’s several easy tricks that can keep your plants cool, productive, and even lessen your water usage.
Wind tearing through your garden can not only damage plants but also causes soil moisture to evaporate. The easy solution to this is to install or grow windbreaks in your garden. Windbreaks don’t need to be solid and stop all the wind. They can be quickly made from snow or pallet fencing. If you’d like living wind breaks consider tall annual crops, shorter perrenials that won’t shade your garden too much like berry bushes or dwarf fruit trees depending on your space, or hedge species. These should be placed perpendicular to the direction of the wind.
Invest in or diy some shade cloth.
Shade cloth can be super helpful for keeping those cools seaosn plants like peas and spinach producing longer. It can also be used over new new transplants that are adjusting to field conditions or seeds like lettuce that prefer cool soils to germinate.
Use a lot of mulch.
Mulch is one of the easiest ways to keep soil temperatures cooler and moisture levels up. Plus mulch cuts down on the weeding. Great mulch options include grass clippings, straw, hay, or old leaves all of which can be combined with cardboard or newspaper.
Water your garden consistently.
Your watering schedule will obviously be unique to your garden but you sould work hard to maintain moist soil conditions. Waiting for plants to start wilting before you realize it’s time to water harms your plants’ health and reduces your harvest.
Water at the right times.
Watering consistently is half the battle but you should also try to water at the best times of day. The early morning and evening are the best times to water. Less water is wasted waisted to evaporation because it has a chance to soak into the soil before it’s exposed to the mid-day sun and heat.
Growing vining plants like watermelons, cucumbers, gourds, squashes, sweet potatoes, and nasturiums under taller plants like corn, sorghum, and sunflowers can help you make the most of your space and keep the soil cool. The vining plants will shade the soil, block weeds, and hold moisture once they’re mature enough.
Create a trellis for climbling plants like cucumbers or runner beans and then plant a cool weather loving crop in the shade they create. These trellises are often set up so they’re slanted to provide maximum shade.
Intensive planting is a principle of biointensive gardening. Plants are grown in beds, not rows and are often planted hexagonally. This style of planting maximizes space. Mature plants may touch leaves but still have plenty of room for their roots. They shade the soil reducing moisture loss and blocking weeds.
Note: planting intensively will work best with healthy soils as you’ll be growing more plants on less space.
Transplant at the right times.
If you’re transplanting crops into your garden it’s best to avoid the heat and sun as much as possible, for your sake and the plant’s! Transplant in the early morning, late evening, or on a cloudy day for best results. The plants will suffer less transplant shock that way.
Catch rainwater around your plants.
For transplants dig your hole a little extra deep and create a basin around each plant that extends outwards a little beyond the edges of the plant’s crown to funnel rainwater towards the roots.
For planting seeds dig your trench slightly deeper than necessary so that rainwater stills runs down into it even after you’ve covered your seeds.
If you’re feeling really productive go ahead and install some rain barrels on your gutters too!
Choose crops wisely.
If you live in an area with hot summer temperatures it’s a good time to start direct seeding crops that can handle the heat. These include plants like watermelon, okra, roselle, lima beans, and southern peas.
Whenever gardening you should be thinking about keeping your soil and therefore your plants healthy. Doing maintanence work like crop rotation, cover cropping, and applying compost will keep your soil and plants healthy. Well nourished, disease free plants will tolerate the stress of hot weather much better than those already struggling.
Gardening is never easy but hot weather can be especially tough on you and your plants. Follow these tips for a healthy and productive garden even in hot, dry weather.
Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip. Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.
North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.
There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.
A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.
A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.
Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!
Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.
Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years. He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.
Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!
Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials. Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!
Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.